The computer code behind the scientific modelling of epidemics like Covid-19 should meet independent professional standards to ensure public trust, BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, has argued.  

In a new policy paper, BCS calls for professional software development standards to be adopted for research that has a critical impact on society, like health, criminal justice and climate change. The underlying code should also be made open-source.

The organisation has also argued there is a lack of widely accepted software development standards in scientific research which has resulted in undermining of confidence in computational modelling, including in high-profile models informing Covid-19 policy.

Bill Mitchell, director of policy at BCS, said: “The politicisation of the role of computer coding in epidemiology has made it obvious that our understanding and use of science relies as much on the underlying code as on the underlying research.

“We welcome the government’s commitment to following science in developing policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic. We support the use of computational modelling in exploring possible outcomes of policy decisions, such as investigating which lockdown measures are likely to have the greatest public health benefits.

“At the same time we consider that – at present – the quality of the software implementations of scientific models appear to rely too much on the individual coding practices of the scientists (who are not computer scientists) who develop them, rather than professional software development practices being publicly evidenced against appropriate standards.”

According to BCS, professionalising and using best practice software development in scientific research should lead to:

  • The ability of different science research groups to share, combine, adapt and build upon software implementations of computational models, no matter whether they are in the same discipline, institution or country.
  • The ability of scientists to correctly modify software implementations of computational models in times of crisis as rapidly as possible.
  • Facilitating reproducibility of research findings and ensuring high quality research is published in peer reviewed journals.
  • Providing reassurance to the public that policy decisions are based on robust evidence of the highest quality.

BSC has also recently published findings of its survey where members were asked about the NHS contact-tracing app.

The survey revealed less than one quarter of its members think the NHS contact-tracing app will be effective on containing Covid-19, while 24% said they believed the app will contribute to curbing the virus.